The Post story raises important questions about the use, quality, and amount of disclosure necessary for pieces created by so-called independent news sources for the MSM. Free content inevitably comes with a quid pro quo, and the public needs to know who is producing and funding such content. That’s why vocal supporters of Social Security—supporters like The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, author Nancy Altman, and Yale professor emeritus Theodore Marmor wrote to Post ombudsman Andy Alexander protesting the paper’s partnership with the Fiscal Times and the article from an “extremely biased source.”
WaPo executive editor Marcus Brauchli told Politico that the paper works “with foundations and non-profit partners who produce journalism on subjects of interest and value to our readers.” He added that where we “use material from outside sources, we always disclose the source of such journalism and ensure it meets The Post’s standards for independence and authority.” But the Post slipped on this one, and its lack of full disclosure and partnership with Peterson’s group prompted last weekend’s e-mail traffic and generated another letter, this one to Brauchli, pointing out “factual errors” in the paper’s story. For example, the letter contends that Nancy Pelosi remains opposed to the commission, despite an inference in the Fiscal Times piece that she has changed her mind. The letter also says that the administration has not taken a public position on the matter of the commission, though the Post/Fiscal Times piece says that President Obama has “voiced support” for a such commission.
Politico began to frame the larger issue, noting that both it and the Post have used stories produced by third parties—from ProPublica—and that the Post and other papers have picked up stories produced by Kaiser Health News, a project of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. All of which brings up the matter of the Kaiser News Service, which has been a prominent source of information during the health reform debate with its own news stories, columns, features, and multimedia presentations. The Fiscal Times’s advisory board includes Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation and a hot, go-to source for reporters crafting their own stories about reform. Will interlocking directorates become a feature of these news arrangements? Is the Fiscal Times drawing from Kaiser’s expertise and partnering with news organizations to supply stories that arguably these organizations should be doing themselves?
Like Peterson’s news service, Kaiser’s operation bills itself as editorially independent. Altman told the Post in November: “We [presumably the foundation] don’t want to become combatants in the fray…We want to control health-care costs, we want to improve the quality of health care and we want everybody covered.” The Kaiser Family Foundation is listed as a partner on the Web site of the Herndon Alliance, a group whose partners have promoted the brand of health reform that got through Congress last month.
How far should mainstream news outlets go in taking content from news outfits that have a strong point of view? Is it acceptable to take content from some and not others? How should they disclose funders with possible hidden agendas that may be embedded in the stories the public comes to rely on? And is an independently produced story with a point of view different from one produced by a newspaper that may also have strong opinions? Newspapers have long published stories on a range of topics and accepted advertising from multiple sources. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and there are lots of payers funding content for the entire paper. But when a news service supplies specific content on narrow topics, or a philanthropic organization funds a single magazine writer to cover a topic near and dear to its mission, one payer can more easily call the tune.
The advertising-supported model of journalism always had its own problems with conflicts. So does the philanthropic model. It’s healthy for Kuttner et al to push hard on the Post’s deal with The Fiscal Times, and for readers and critics in general to keep a hard eye on the philanthropic model. We at CJR will do the same. For consumers of news, it has always been caveat emptor. Now, with news services inserting their stories into the MSM, those words take on added meaning.